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Source: The Inquirer

Posted on August 21, 2000

      In the virtual online world, even a "cookie" has the power to invade your privacy. And the majority of Internet users don't even know it is happening to them, according to a survey released yesterday.

      The report found that 56 percent of Internet users have no idea that their queries on the World Wide Web are being tracked - or what to do to protect themselves.

      "Americans want the golden rule of the Internet to be, 'Don't do anything unto me, unless I know about it,' " said Lee Rainie, project director of the new survey about online trust and privacy commissioned by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in Washington, D.C.

      "When we did this study, a bunch of people went to their computers and were stunned when they learned how they could be tracked online," he said.

      Based on interviews of 2,117 people between May and June, the study found that breaches of privacy rank among the top concerns among those who surf the Net.

      But few had heard about the tracking technology capable of following their every click of the mouse - "cookies," a virtual electronic bracelet on users surfing the Internet.

      Cookies are bits of software that are imprinted on the hard drives of Internet users when they visit a specific site - prints that allow companies to monitor online movements.

      Download that Web site on how to combat baldness?

      A bookmark will be entered on your computer.

      According to the survey, 54 percent of Internet users say that tracking is harmful, compared with 27 percent who say it is helpful, because it allows companies doing the tracking to tailor information to a specific consumer's tastes.

      Internet users can set their browsers to alert them before cookies are placed on their computers and their usage is tracked; users also can discover how many cookies have been placed on their computers. To access that information or the survey, go to http://www.pewinternet.org.

      Still, said Susannah Fox, the report's principal author, a surprising number of people are willing to share personal information if given the choice. In fact, the survey found that 54 percent of Internet users have provided personal information to access a Web site, and 10 percent said they would be willing to provide it under the right circumstances.

      "What Internet users want is control," said Fox, who is also the director of research at the Pew Internet and American Life Project. "They want the power to choose. ... They want the privacy field tilted toward them and away from online companies."

      And, she said, most Internet users reject the idea that government - or business - knows best. In formulating regulations and curbs on Internet activity tracking, half of all Americans online said Internet users were the best people to make up the rules.

      The rules they want, according to the survey, are very clear: 86 percent of Internet users favor what is called an "opt-in" privacy policy, requiring Internet companies to ask for permission before using personal information - which, according to the study, is the policy that has been adopted in the European Union.

      In the United States, the survey said, the Clinton administration, the Federal Trade Commission and a consortium of Internet advertisers have embraced what is called an "opt-out" policy, requiring users to take steps to protect their privacy.

      For a small group of users, that means lying, or as the study calls it, using "guerrilla tactics." The survey found that about a quarter of Internet users have used a fake name or given false personal information in order to access a Web site.

      And men are more likely than women to engage in guerrilla tactics, according to the survey.

      Despite such concerns about privacy, the study found that Internet users "behave in surprisingly trusting ways in many sensitive online areas."

      That would include e-mail. Only 28 percent of those surveyed were concerned about other people reading their e-mail, Fox said.

      And e-mail, she said, is one of the least secure areas of the Internet. If a user doesn't have password-protected e-mail, it can be read by anyone if the computer is on.

      If users get e-mail through their employer, the company's technical support staff can scroll through it anytime.

      Business executives curious to find out whether their minions are surfing the Web instead of working can easily do so.

      And yet, many Internet users continue to conduct personal business during working hours. According to a tracking poll conducted by the Pew Internet Project, about 10 percent are surfing the Web just for fun or to simply pass the time; 8 percent are looking for information about a hobby; 4 percent are searching for information about entertainment and leisure activities; and 3 percent are looking for a new job.

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